We commonly think of bees, hornets and wasps when it comes to allergic reactions, but the fire ant is also a culprit, especially in Florida. Lots of people get stung, especially in the summer months. Up to 5 percent of the U.S. population suffers an allergic reaction to these stings. The scenario is easy to imagine: You could be walking in the park and unknowingly step on an ant pile. Then, you suddenly feel yourself being bitten repeatedly.
Reactions to a fire ant sting can range from a normal reaction at the site — redness, itching and swelling, then a pus-filled blister that develops within four to 24 hours — to an allergic reaction that can include redness, itching, swelling or hives, more severe anaphylaxis, including throat or tongue swelling, breathing difficulty, abdominal cramps or loss of consciousness. A severe allergic reaction can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention.
Fire ants are stinging insects typically seen in Southern states, from Florida to Texas. Although there are native fire ants, most of the fire ants people are allergic to have been imported, accidentally, from South America. The red or black imported fire ants inhabit more than 260 million acres in the Southeast. They build nests of dirt on the ground or on edges of sidewalks. Fire ants bite with their jaws, and one ant can inflict multiple stings in a short time. Semicircular patterns of stings often occur. After 24 hours, the bites sometimes appear as cloudy white blisters. Multiple enzymes and toxins in fire ant venom cause the reaction.
When you've had a possible allergic reaction to a fire ant sting, it is imperative that you seek medical attention immediately, then see a board-certified allergist and immunologist who is specialized and trained in diagnosing and treating fire ant allergy. Diagnosing fire ant allergy can be done with a skin test. If you are diagnosed with a fire ant allergy, you will be prescribed a lifesaving EpiPen to be used in the event of a severe allergic reaction. It is important to know how to work an EpiPen and to always seek medical attention immediately if an EpiPen has been used. Allergy shots, also known as immunotherapy, are an excellent and effective long-term treatment option for fire ant allergy. You are given small but increasing doses of the allergen, in this case whole body fire ant extract, until your body is able to tolerate it. Eventually, patients who have lived in fear of an allergic reaction to a fire ant sting can return to normal life knowing their risk has been reduced to that of the general population.
There are a few ways to lessen your chances of being stung by fire ants in the first place: Watch where you walk, taking care not to step on a fire ant mound; wear closed-toe shoes and, if possible, socks when walking in the grass; wear gloves if working in the garden. There are also products that can help you get rid of fire ant mounds and kill the queen ant.
Being outdoors in the summer is a fun way to enjoy the great weather, so don't miss out.
If you think you have a fire ant allergy, speak to a board-certified allergist for a diagnosis and treatment plan that will help keep you safe outdoors.
Dr. Mona V. Mangat and Dr. Ami K. Degala are board-certified allergists and immunologists at Bay Area Allergy & Asthma in St. Petersburg. Find them at bayallergy.com. If you have a question for the doctors, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your question may be answered in a future column.